The Gorge-ous Yangtze River – Part 2 – From Wu Gorge to the Three Gorges Dam.

In the afternoon of the second day of our Yangtze River Cruise, after having passed through 2 of the 3 Gorges for which the Three Gorges Dam is named, our ship docked at Badong, where we were transferred to a smaller ferry boat to take us on a trip up Shennong Stream, one of the tributaries of the Yangtze River.

Originally the Shennong Steam was a wild river flanked by almost vertical limestone cliffs; however, since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the water level has risen approximately 175 meters. Today the lower reaches of the Shennong Stream are presently a gently flowing river with much of the previously scenic vertical gorge now submerged.

The banks of the Shennong Stream have been inhabited since at least the Han Dynasty. Early history of settlement in the Shennong Stream Gorge is evidenced by the hanging coffins stowed in clefts on the high vertical limestone clefts. It is difficult to understand how the heavy coffins were stowed on such steep, ostensibly inaccessible places. See:

The coffins themselves were typically carved from a single layer section of a tree trunk, which was approximately 90 cm in diameter; although the lid section was split off to be separate. Some of these coffins can be seen traveling along the Shennong Stream (see my picture above). The coffins are typically 30 to 150 meters from the bluff top above and 25 to 70 meters above the river surface. Most commonly a coffin rests on two sturdy hewn poles that have been wedged within limestone clefts or caves to form generally level platform. Many of these coffins have been lost or destroyed due to the Three Gorges Dam construction, which caused the inundation of many of these coffins, however, many coffins have been retrieved for cultural presentation and study. For example, one such coffin was retrieved about 10 km west along the Yangtze River and is on display at the White Emperor’s Palace, (see my picture below).

After about 30 minutes, the ferry arrived at the Shennong Stream landing where we were transferred to traditional sanpans (called “peapod boats” by the local because of their shape) in groups of about 12 passengers.

The sampan crew consists of the captain, who steer the boat, and three or four boat trackers, who row the boat from the bow. We also had a local Tujia guide who provided a running commentary along with some very nice singing of traditional love songs. One of our fellow passengers, who we are told is an Opera Singer, also broke out in song.

Here’s a picture I took of another boat from our sanpan:

Boat Trackers

One way people along the Yangtze River have made their living for centuries, is by boat tracking. Originally boat trackers worked all over the Yangtze River, but now they are primarily located on the Shennong Stream.

When one of the small river boats gets stuck on a sandbar, it is time for the trackers to jump into action. Only a few feet above the ancient waterline a thin ledge runs for several miles. It is barely 60cm wide it was cut by hand from the solid rock walls. The trackers climb onto this ledge and, by using ropes connected to the boats, tow the boats off the sandbar.

These boat trackers, who keep the old tradition alive, are local farmers who do this to earn some extra money and supplement their income. In the summertime, because of the heat and to keep their clothes dry, the boat trackers used to do this naked. Now they wear shorts, shirts and also woven rope sandals to prevent slipping on the smooth rocks. The long ropes are made of braided bamboo strips, which are soaked in water making them very strong.

Picture and info from:

Our trackers jumped out of our boat to recreate pulling the boats, but they kept their clothes on. Here’s a picture of our guide singing for us:

After our guide finished singing, a fellow passenger (an Opera singer from Turkey) broke out in beautiful song serenading us with a sailor’s song. Goosebumps on our arms – his voice filling the quiet canyon. In the picture below: Holly and I with our fellow passengers. (The Opera Singer is the man just above my head holding up a camera.) We had particularly enjoyable table mates at our dinner table – that’s Carol between Mark and I, with her husband Rex in the orange hat. Behind us is Chris, with his lovely wife, Molly. We sure enjoyed them!

This was a very fun little excursion.

The Three Gorges Dam –

After the excursion up the Shennon Stream, we re-boarded the Victoria Katarina about dinner time and resumed our trip down-river to the Three Gorges Dam. We arrived at the ship locks of the dam about 10 p.m. As we arrived we could see the two sets of locks, one for traffic moving down-river on the right and one for traffic moving up-river on the left.

The locks are 280 m long and 35 m wide (918 x 114 ft.). There 5 stages to the locks and the total transit time is approximately 4 hours to clear all 5 stages. When the water level is at its maximum of 175 meters (574 ft.) above sea level, the water behind the dam is more than 300 feet higher than the river level downstream. As we arrived at the dam, the water level was about 170 meters, almost at maximum. We were told it would reach maximum depth in a few weeks.

As we entered the locks, we could see that there were already three other ships waiting for us to join them in the lock. Our ship hugged the wall of the lock on the left and tucked in behind the ship on the left and next to the ship on the right.

These locks are staircase locks, whereby inner lock gate pairs serve as both the upper gate and lower gate. The gates are the hinged type, which, if damaged, could temporarily render the entire flight unusable. Each stage of the locks raises or lowers ships by approximately 65 feet.

In the picture below, the first stage has lowered us to the level of the next stage. Note the water line along the top of the lock walls – that’s the level we started at. The lock doors to the second level have opened and the two ships in front of us are moving forward into the next stage.

Holly demonstrates just how close we are to the wall of the lock by reaching out and touching the lock wall.

After watching the operation of the lock for the first and second stages, we went to bed. When we woke up the next morning we were docked at Sandouping, the city immediately down-river from the Three Gorges. We were loaded onto buses for an excursion to tour the Three Gorges Dam. The dam is a huge tourist attraction, about 2 million visitors a year we were told, but security is tight. They unloaded the buses and everyone went through airport like security and the bus was searched before we were allowed to re-board the bus and continue on to the Visitor’s Area.

The first stop is the Map Room/Visitors Center. Here they have a diorama of the dam complex. Because it was a hazy day, this was the best view we had of the dam, even if only a model.

There is a sightseeing hill with escalators to take us to the top for a bird’s eye view of the locks and the dam. Below is a view of a portion of the locks during the daytime. Look closely and you can see the tops of ships going through the locks in both directions.

Here’s a photo of me in front of the dam and the soon to be completed ship lift. The ship lift is like an elevator for ships and will handle ships up to 3,000 tons. The ship lift, when completed, will take 30 to 40 minutes to transit, as opposed to the three to four hours for stepping through the locks.

After our tour of the Three Gorges Dam was completed, we were met at our ship by a driver to take us to the Yichang train station. The cruise we were on actually ends at Yichang and the rest of our fellow passengers boarded the ship for lunch and left the ship in Yichang in the early afternoon. Our schedule was too tight for that, so we drove about an hour from Sandouping to Yichang.

We boarded our first bullet train in China in Yichang for an 8 hour trip to Shanghai. The bullet train is nothing like the old, slow, overnight trains we had taken from Beijing to Pingyao, Pingyao to Xian, and Xian to Chongqing. The Chinese bullet train is very fast, achieving speeds of 300 kilometers per hour and smooth. Last year we took a bullet train in France, and I’d say this was very comparable.

We had booked 1st class tickets on the bullet train and the seats were very comfortable, with plenty of room to stretch out. Here’s Holly working on her blog post.

Next up: Shanghai, Tongli and Hangzhou – you won’t want to miss these blog posts.

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